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5 November, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

The American Choice of Europe

The EU hopes for Barack Obama to win the election, yet expects global leadership from any US president

If Europeans had a vote, there would be no doubt who would win the American presidential election. Barack Obama would be re-elected with a massive majority. But Americans do not see things the same way. And the race is now so close that it is almost impossible for any European leader to predict who they will be dealing with. What they do know, however, is that whoever occupies the White House will face a massive challenge in re-engaging with a continent increasing worried about its own future and its relations with the United States.

All foreign governments tend to prefer an incumbent president to his challenger because they already know him. They have had four years to figure out his personality, adjust to his policies and understand his priorities. With a new president, they have to start all over again - establishing a personal relationship, focusing his attention on their concerns and sometimes simply teaching him the basic facts of foreign policy.

This year the concern over Mitt Romney is particularly acute because of the influence of the right wing of the Republican party. To most West Europeans, the Republicans have been advocating foreign policies seen as extremely one-sided or dangerous - a military strike on Iran, unqualified support for Israel, a confrontation with China and an assertion of American military power around the world. They hope that Romney, if elected, would turn out to be more moderate and pragmatic than his campaign rhetoric, and would behave more as he did when he was governor of Massachussetts. But there are also worries that if the Republicans capture control of both houses of Congress, there will be no brake on the Tea Party faction in the party, and that Romney will find it difficult to ignore policies pushed by his party and seen by the Europeans are extreme.

That does not mean, however, that there are not concerns still about Obama. He has been a disappointment to many Europeans as well as to many of his own supporters in the US. He appears to be too cerebral, too detatched and too inflexible to win the essential backing of Congress, and cannot therefore deliver on key policies that affect not only America but the rest of the world - especially his economic agenda. At the same time, he is also seen as too weak or too disinterested in some key areas where Europe believes America must show leadership - in reactions to the Arab Spring and on the Middle East peace process in particular.

Europeans understand that, during the six months before an election, all US presidential candidates are preoccupied with domestic policies and with their campaigns, and therefore have little time to focus on foreign policy. But this year the challenge of re-engaging the President after the election is particularly acute - not because of events in Washington, but because the core countries of Western Europe are wholly preoccupied with the euro crisis. European leaders usually try to visit the White House as soon as the new president takes office in January - especially if there is a change of team there. But this year they may still be locked in tricky negotiations with each other on what to do to save the euro and prevent Greece from defaulting. The coming elections in Germany mean that no main decisions on this will be taken until after the German elections - which will force eurozone leaders to focus on their own problems just at the time when they would normally be building new bridges across the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, the message that all Western leaders will send to the White House, whoever is living there, is that America must now be more vigorous in demonstrating global economic leadership if growth is to return and the long-drawn out economic crisis is finally to end. Some commentators in Britain and Spain, for example, are even hoping that a Romney victory might speed this up, as he would swiftly cut taxes and encourage consumer spending, thereby starting a new boom that would help other countries ease back on austerity. In any case, whoever wins must immediately grasp the US budget issue to prevent the automatic spending cuts taking effect. These would impose massive reductions in US government spending, which could immediately send US growth into reverse.

The new President must also outline much clearer policies in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Europeans are all hoping to pull out all their troops from Afghanistan, but want to ensure that the US is able to stick to an orderly timetable of withdrawal and will negotiate a continuation of some military backing after 2014. Otherwise there are fears that chaos will swiftly return to Afghanistan and all the European troops killed there will have died in vain.
Iran will also be an immediate concern. If Obama wins, the hope is that he will still be able to restrain the Israelis and stop any unilateral Israeli attack and can perhaps engage Iran in talks. But the pressure will be rising, especially on Romney if he is president, to do something dramatic to force Iran to give up its nuclear weapons. Syria is also a growing concern. Obama took a back seat in the Nato effort to help the rebels in Libya. Will he continue to remain disengaged over Syria? The Europeans themselves do not know what to do. But intervention may become inevitable, especially if the Assad government continues to create mini-Stalingrads in Syrian cities and further provokes Turkey, a Nato member.

Both US candidates have made a tough stand with China a main plank of their campaigns. But Europe does not want to see a new Cold War with Beijing, especially at a time when the Chinese leadership will be replaced and the new men will be extremely cautious and anxious to show that they are tough enough not to be bullied by Washington. China is still key to any global economic recovery, despite the slow-down in its own growth. Europe wants America to re-engage with China is a way that might persuade the Chinese to help Europe in its own economic problems.

On Russia, Europeans have more mixed feelings. Western Europeans regret that the "reset" in US-Russian relations is failing, and blame Putin for the deterioration. But countries with big investments and economic links with Russia, such as Germany, do not want any breakdown in relations. East Europeans and those countries closer to Russia, however, want America to take a much tougher line to prevent the new Putin authoritarianism making Russia again dangerous to its neighbours. Indeed, some European Union countries, such as Poland, would prefer a Romney victory if this meant Washington would be tougher with Putin.

Traditional allies of the US such as Britain will work closely with either Obama or Romney. Their main worry is that neither man is really interested in either Nato or Europe any more, and that the focus of American policy is more and more to the Pacific. This would make a resolution of the euro crisis increasingly difficult, especially for a country such as Britain which is outside the eurozone and is moving steadily away from full engagement with the EU. Britain has always imagined that America could be a political and economic alternative to Europe. Whoever wins the White House, it is clear that America is less interested than ever in relying on Britain as its main global partner.

Most Western governments assume that Obama will be re-elected - by a very small majority. They hope that he will re-invigorate his style and his effectiveness in dealing with Congress. But few believe that the next four years will be easy for Europe, whoever wins on November 6.

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